The Buhari government is mishandling the agitations for self-determination in Nigeria. The government’s heavy-handed response to the admittedly menacing activities of Nnamdi Kanu and his Independent People of Biafra (IPOB) was misguided. Militarising the Southeast, under the so-called “Operation Python Dance”, and declaring IPOB a terrorist group, amounted to using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. A wise government would not deploy the military to clamp down so hard on an irritating, yes, but unarmed agitators for self-determination.
Agitations for self-determination are a global phenomenon. Indeed, last week, two events of international proportions happened that make IPOB’s activities pale into insignificance. On 25 September, the Kurdish people in Iraq ignored pressure from Iraq, Iran and Turkey, as well as from the US, and held a referendum on independence from Iraq. Similarly, as you read this, Catalonia in Spain would have held an independence referendum yesterday, on 1 October, in defiance of the ruling of Spain’s Constitutional Court, and opposition from the Spanish government and the European Union. Of course, Quebec voted on separation from Canada in 1995, and Scotland voted on secession from the UK in 2014.
The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation (UNPO), which had only 15 members at its founding in 1991, now has 43 members, all of which want to exercise the right to self-determination in one form or another. As Wolfgang Danspeckgruber, the Director of the Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination at Princeton University, said, “No other concept is as powerful, visceral, emotional, unruly, as steep in creating aspirations and hopes as self-determination”. The desire for self-determination is deeply strong, and hardly ever goes away until fulfilled.
But self-determination is also an objective reality in the sense that it has long been recognised by the United Nations and in international law as a fundamental right; in fact, so fundamental, so cardinal that it is regarded as a rule of jus cogens, a hard law, from which there can be no derogation. It is embodied in Article 1 of the Charter of the UN, affirmed by the International Court of Justice in, for example, the Namibia, Western Sahara and East Timor cases, and recognised by several Resolutions and Declarations of the UN General Assembly.
Crucially, the right to self-determination, as expressed or implied in the UN Declarations, impose a duty on states to refrain from any forcible action calculated to deprive a people of this right. Some countries, such as the UK and Switzerland, respect this duty by allowing self-determination, including full independence, subject to a referendum; others, such as China and Spain, both with authoritarian histories, have anti-secession clause in their constitution.
But why are some entities able to become independent states while others are not? The Harvard economist Alberto Alesina argues that, “If country size were determined by economic rationality or democratic preferences of national communities, the map of the world would look completely different”. For instance, why are Timor-Leste (population: 1.3m), Montenegro (629,000) and the Pacific Island of Nauru (11,359) independent states while the Kurds (45m) or the Catalan (7.5m) are being denied statehood? The answer, according to the historian Niall Ferguson, lies in how low or high the strategic stakes are. Without the Kurds, Iraq would become a shell of its old self; and would Spain be the same without Catalonia, its richest region?
The same strategic calculations are at work in Nigeria. Surely, if push comes to shove, the Yoruba (approximately 40m) can become a viable independent state. So can the Igbo (34m) and the Ijaw (14m), not to mention the Hausa/Fulani (approximately 50m). Yet the strategic stakes are so high that we are constantly told that Nigeria is indissoluble or that its unity is not negotiable. Of course, both statements are not true, as I once argued on this page. However, behind those statements lies the reality that a Nigeria without the Yoruba or the Igbo or the Ijaw would not be a Nigeria of anybody’s pride; it would lose its cachet. Indeed, it would simply disintegrate, and break up into different parts like the former Yugoslavia. But here is the rub. If we must keep together as one entity Nigeria’s disparate nations, even though each of them could individually become viable independent countries, then the Nigerian union must be built on justice, equity and fairness. Yet, this is so far not the case. At the heart of the quests for self-determination in Nigeria today are concerns about inequity, injustice and unfair material treatment.
In his book, ‘Because I am Involved’, the late Biafran leader, Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, said of Nigeria: “An impossible federation was created in which all cards were stacked in favour of one component part”. At their conference in Ibadan last month, Yoruba leaders argued that the Southwest was better off in the early 1960s, under a devolved regional government, than it is now. One of the leaders put it this way, “Over-centralisation brings the best down to the level of the rest instead of taking the rest up to the level of the best”, adding that “the South west is the main victim of this tendency”.
There is some utopianism at the heart of the Nigerian project. Some people believe Nigeria must be run centrally by a “powerful” president to keep the country together. But instead of authoritarian utopia, what we’ve had is totalitarian dystopia. Think of it, how could one man, whether Yoruba, Igbo or Hausa/Fulani, stay in Abuja with some acolytes and pretend to be running nearly 85% of the affairs of this vast, diverse and complex country? Even Plato, who imagined in ‘The Republic’ an ideal city-state in which executive power rests in the hands of the philosopher-ruler, had in mind a relatively self-contained and ethnically monochrome society, not a diverse, multi-nation country like Nigeria.
What’s more, Plato argued that the philosopher-ruler that would run the city-state needs a specialised form of knowledge (gnosis). But who has ruled this country that can be described as a philosopher-ruler, as a captain with adequate knowledge of navigation to steer the ship-of-state? None! Nigeria was 57 yesterday, but in those 57 years, it has only produced mediocre leaders, who either lacked vision or competence, or both. So, I ask again, in a country where the gifted, the talented, can never become president, why do we have such a centralised political system, where one man can have so much power and control over the destinies of 185m Nigerians and 250 ethnic nationalities? Why?
Even worse, despite the diversity of Nigeria, governance is not contractarian, not based on negotiations and consensus, but on the-might-is-right philosophy. Policies are what the most powerful individuals in this country – call them the mafia, the cabal or whatever – say it is. Governance is not responsive, accountable or transparent. As Thucydides famously said in the dialogue with Plato in The Republic, “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”. That’s the situation in Nigeria. In 2015, President Buhari said that “constituencies that gave me 97% cannot in all honesty be treated equally, on some issues, with constituencies that gave me 5%”, referring to the Southeast and South-South that gave him scanty votes. With that statement, Buhari exposed another flaw at the heart of Nigeria’s politico-governance structure: the winner-takes-all philosophy. In a multi-nation country, the president has so much power of patronage, and can treat the geo-political zones differentially!
So, it’s understandable why there are agitations for self-determination in Nigeria. As I said, it’s a fundamental right. But self-determination can take different forms, of which secession is the extreme, nuclear option. Nigeria must not go down that route. What Nigeria’s various nationalities need is not secession, but a new political settlement that would lead to the creation of regional governments, with a great degree of political and economic autonomy within a federal structure. Considerable self-government at the regional level is needed to enable each region to mobilise resources and develop at its pace. Sadly, the North is reticent. Yet, it stands to gain from self-government, from regionalism. It should support political restructuring!